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LATIN AMERICA | 13-11-2023 16:55

In prosperous Uruguay, homeless population grows in the capital

Uruguay stands out in Latin America for its high income per capita, low inequality and low poverty. Yet homelessness is increasing on the streets of Montevideo.

Pablo Perdomo’s scar from a stab he received as a car parker reminds him how tough the streets are. He is 48 years old and a former painter and glazier with a family life, but today he is a part of the growing homeless population of the Uruguayan capital.

“I never thought I’d end up like this”, he said while waiting the state-run shelter where he sleeps to open. 

In Montevideo, which accounts for nearly half the population of the country, 2,800 people live in the streets, 24 percent more than in 2021 and 55 percent more than in 2019, according to the latest survey of the Social Development Ministry. 

Fernanda Auersperg, director of Social Protection of the Ministry holds that the problem has many causes, largely the prison situation in Uruguay, where four out of every thousand people are incarcerated and 26 are freed every day. Facing that revolving door is “one of the great challenges,” she stated.

Out of the 1,400 people spending the night outdoors in Montevideo, 53 percent were in prison, half of them up to three times.

“I’ve never been in jail, but most of the boys around the corner have”, said Alejandro, a 38-year-old car parker who would rather not give his last name. He has been wandering day and night around the Old Town for six years.

Emanuel Rodríguez, aged 21, has never been incarcerated either, but he said that at the Ministry’s shelter where he sleeps there are people with an ankle monitor and former inmates.

“Most of those seeking shelter want to be a bit better off, they’re still on drugs but they know that at a certain time they have a place to sleep warmly and a plate of food. The others would rather spend the night outdoors and freeze their balls off for a puff,” he added.

Rodríguez has his daughter’s name, “Naomi,” tattoed on his neck, his motivation to leave free-base cocaine and “get ahead”.

To Auersperg, the increase in drug use is “another great challenge”.

According to the Social Development Ministry, most rough sleepers in Montevideo are are male, Uruguayan, aged on average 39, out of which over 90 percent are on drugs and 72 percent daily. The most popular ones are free-base cocaine (77 percent) and alcohol (53 percent).

“I can’t stand my toxic emotions”, Alejandro acknowledges, who smokes five or six hits of free-base cocaine a day, at 100 Uruguayan pesos (US$2.5) each. “Every day I want to quit and I can’t”. 

He does not beg for money to buy drugs. “I grab a broom, I sweep the pavement, I clean some windows, I offer to throw rubbish out,” he said. With that he earns around 800 Uruguan pesos (US$20) every day.

Jorge Silva, a 59-year-old former stevedore, homeless for four years, owns up to his alcoholism: “Sometimes being on the streets is a choice, too. I could drink a bit less wine and pay for a room. You can’t lie to yourself."

To survive, he sells donated things and he receives from people at fairs and gets 1,600 Uruguayan pesos (around US$42) per month from the government. “I get fed by neighbours, thank God,” he pointed out, as he lit a cigarette.

Like 43 percent of those surveyed, Pablo Perdomo ended up on the street after breaking family bonds. He claims he is sober, but he “was heavily into cocaine."

Out of those surveyed by the Ministry, around 40 percent have received addiction treatment and around 20 percent have been committed due to psychiatric problems.

At 46, Willy Vallejo has been dealing with his paranoid schizophrenia for quite some time. 

He has slept in a square and spent 11 years in shelters, but now he lives in a home for people with mental disorders who were homeless, a novel self-management experience backed and funded by the Social Development Ministry.

“I asked God or the Universe not to wake up the next day when I was in a shelter. Please, I don’t want to live like this anymore. I want to live well, the way I’m living now”, he said, enthusiastic about the project of the community home he shares with nine other people.

Auersperg applauds such initiatives. 

“There are different realities in the homelessness issue”, she stressed, that is why “more custom-made, much more diversified, responses, must be provided."

by Alina Dieste, AFP

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